Jesus’ questioning cry “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (MK 15.24|MT 27:47) is known in theological circles as the ‘Cry of Dereliction’ (of abandonment, rejection, or forsakenness). For now let’s call it ‘the Cry’. But frankly, to call the Cross the Father’s dereliction of his Son is already to have interpreted the Cross in a way (not only) we think not possible.
I ran across a post by Barth scholar Darren Sumner (from 2012) that considers the Cry. Sumner considers (but rejects) the possibility that Jesus is not rejected by the Father but that the Cry is an allusion to Ps 22 (which, by the way, doesn’t describe divine abandonment but reassurance in suffering). But I don’t want to engage Sumner’s post or the reasons for preferring a reference to Ps 22 here (though I’m convinced that’s what is behind Jesus’ words). I’m more interested in the comments section of Summer’s post. Among those comments you’ll find two responses, one by Nick Norelli. (His linked name there takes you to his blog, not to his comment on Summer’s post.) Do take advantage of reading Norelli’s response on Sumner’s post though. I’m tempted to reproduce the whole thing here, but it’s a blog post in itself.
After Norelli’s response, consider the response by a certain PD there in the comments section. Short and sweet, but good. I never picked up on the passage (John 16.31-33) he cites regarding the impossibility of thinking the Father actually rejects Jesus on the Cross:
“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
That pretty much rules out the divine abandonment view. Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.
I’ve also been reflecting on Heb. 12.1-3, a passage I’m convinced makes the divine abandonment view of the Cry impossible:
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Now, juxtapose this description of Jesus’ experience of the Cross with the Cry. What do you sense?
The Cry is interpreted by many as describing the Father’s rejection of his Son. But the author of Hebrews believes Jesus “endured the Cross for the joy set before him.” What can it mean to say he “endured” the Cross? Clearly it can’t mean he “survived” the Cross. Why not? Because Jesus obviously didn’t survive the Cross. He died on it. So “enduring” the Cross has to mean something other than “surviving” it, something other than not dying on it. But if not survival, then what? (Never mind the additional comment in Heb 12 that Jesus “despised the shame” of being crucified, hardly a perspective one who believes himself a derelict rejected by God would be in a position to embrace.)
“Enduring” can only describe some persisting feature of Jesus’ conscious experience which the Cross could not wrest from him or define away, some unsurrendered belief the truth of which constitutes the saving power of the Cross as such. What can this be but Jesus’ confident and unfailing belief regarding his deepest sense of identity and purpose and the sustained conviction that he would again celebrate the joy of its truth—the truth of who he was and why he came?
The “endurance” in question is thus the enduring belief in his identity as the Father’s Son and his mission as sent by the Father contrary to a world from which every evidence of the Father’s love and faithfulness had vanished. It meant maintaining that belief and defining his sufferings “from within a framework of meaning” the Cross could not deconstruct. To not endure the Cross would have meant allowing the Cross to define him out of his identity and purpose. It would have meant his believing about himself what those who crucified him believed about the crucified—that he was utterly forsaken of God. We suggest that it is Jesus’ enduring perspective on himself as beloved Son, as suffering purposefully in obedience to his Father and not as abandoned by him, in precisely those circumstances Jews believed were evidence of God’s having cursed him, that renders his suffering a saving act.